Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Upon hearing a Clark County judge’s decision Wednesday to vacate the convictions of Alan G. Northrop and Larry W. Davis, family and friends in the courtroom erupted in cheers.
Seated at a table, Northrop smiled and raised his fist in the air triumphantly. Next to him, his attorney, John Pantazis, clapped.
Citing new DNA evidence, Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard said she believed now — 17 years after the men were convicted of attacking a woman in La Center — a jury could reach a different conclusion in the case.
“Because of that, I’m going to vacate the convictions,” she said, eliciting shouts of relief from the defendants’ family and friends.
“You guys have been through hell,” one man shouted.
“Survivors Northrop and Davis. Innocent,” a woman yelled.
In July 1993, a jury had convicted Northrop, now 45, of first-degree rape, kidnapping and burglary. He was sentenced to 23 years and six months in prison.
In May 1993, a different jury convicted Davis, now 53, of being an accomplice to first-degree rape, and of first-degree kidnapping and first-degree burglary. He received 20 years and six months in prison.
The convictions related to a home-invasion rape of a then-36-year-old housekeeper cleaning a home in La Center on Jan. 11, 1993.
The convictions were based solely on the victim’s eyewitness identification — something the defense contended was problematic, given she was blindfolded and only able to get a fleeting look at her assailants.
With time off for good behavior, Davis was released in January. But Northrop has been serving his sentence at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen. He was released Wednesday afternoon, per the judge’s wishes.
The judge was being asked to look at new DNA testing that suggested they weren’t at the scene of the crime and pointed to different assailants.
The testing was performed at the request of the Innocence Project Northwest, which operates in conjunction with the University of Washington’s law school.
This is only the Innocence Project’s second DNA exoneration in Washington. The first came in 2006 when a judge in Yakima County vacated the rape conviction of Ted Bradford.
In Clark County’s 1993 case, samples were taken from the woman’s fingernails and pubic hair, but were not tested for DNA because of the lack of technology to test small amounts.
In recent testing, the results of the fingernail scrapings showed DNA matches with two different, unknown people. The results of the pubic hair matched the DNA profile of one of those people.
None of the DNA testing showed a match with Northrop or Davis.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve called a forensic scientist to testify to the possibility the DNA evidence could have come from the carpet, where the victim struggled with her attackers.
Fairgrieve was trying to show there could be other reasons for the DNA evidence.
“The absence of DNA evidence at a crime scene is not evidence of innocence,” Fairgrieve said. “Crimes happen every day where no DNA is left behind.”
But Pantazis, staff attorney with the Innocence Project, pointed out the home where the crime occurred had been kept immaculately clean and was not subject to having unknown people’s DNA in the carpet.
“There’s absolutely no evidence in the record that the DNA came from the house,” he said.
Following the judge’s decision, Fairgrieve then said he planned to re-file charges as a formality.
Investigators will continue to try and find the source of the unknown DNA profiles, he said, and track down the victim for questioning in light of the new evidence — something they haven’t yet been able to do.
“Frankly, that’s a major issue,” he said. “Without the victim, we have insufficient evidence to go forward.”
A decision to move forward with the case or drop charges altogether will be made in a month, Fairgrieve said. Should the men be convicted again, they would receive credit for the time they have served in prison, he added.
In the meantime, Woolard set a new trial for July 19.
Both men were placed on supervised release. Davis lives in Ridgefield, and Northrop told the judge Wednesday he planned to stay with his brother in the Salmon Creek area.
Waiting for release
After Wednesday morning’s hearing, Northrop’s family and friends anxiously waited outside the Clark County Jail for his release.
Northrop’s former girlfriend, Kellee Butts, came with Northrop’s 19-year-old son, who hadn’t seen his dad since age 2.
Northrop’s first order of business? Playing catch with his son, she said.
“He’s ecstatic,” she said of Northrop. “He can’t wait to get on with his life.”
Davis’ echoed Butts’ sentiment. “It feels good to be free finally,” he said. “I’m just overwhelmed with joy.”
That’s exactly why the Innocence Project Northwest takes on wrongful convictions, said the project’s director, Jacqueline McMurtrie.
“For 17 years, they’ve been waiting for this moment: to come into court and prove they didn’t commit these crimes,” she said. “Justice was served, and we hope it continues to be served.”